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Sleep time equals relax time – or does it?

Sleep time equals relax time – or does it?

By Lisa Buchan, 5 July 2018


You’ve had a long day, head hits the pillow and now time for your body to completely relax – think again!

Recently I’ve had 4 weeks off work recovering from an injury with a lot of still and quiet time which has given me the space to slow down and pay more attention to my body. I was very surprised to observe (and I know I’m not alone in this) how much tension I was holding in my neck in particular when resting in bed ready to go to sleep. Was this a result of the recent trauma or was I doing this beforehand? (I have a sneaky feeling I may have been). Either way now is the time to remedy it.

We’ve talked before on tips to get to sleep, such as no tv or devices, but haven’t covered specific muscle tension so I thought I’d share my thoughts.

What I observed as laying on the pillow was my head was tilted slightly back and jaw up which was engaging the sub-occipital muscle group, and we all know how much tension we can feel in that area at the base of the skull and is a cause of headaches. When I actively relaxed those muscles it made such a difference to how I feel, and the more I do it the better it gets.

From what I have encountered on the massage table I would say this is a common occurrence as many people are unable to switch of these muscles during their massage, other problem areas are the upper traps and pectoral muscles which seem to want to engage by themselves subconsciously.

What’s next?

The main objective is to recognise areas of your body where you are holding tension at rest, it may even be sitting back on the couch watching tv or reading a book, and then actively letting go of them. This behaviour has probably been building up for some time so will take time, patience and work to stop these patterns.

I suggest each night when you are in bed and lights are out is to do a quick body scan and use some muscle relaxation techniques. One of my favourites and the most simple is to tense the muscle group as hard as you can on the breath in and then let go as much as you can on the breath out. So many other techniques can be used but I recommend this to start.

Here’s a link to the Edmund Jacobsen progressive muscle/relaxation technique https://www.healthline.com/health/what-is-jacobson-relaxation-technique


Some pillows will exacerbate muscle tension behavioural patterns so you will need to find one that suits your body size, but a lot people struggle with finding the right pillow, is it the pillow that makes you feel uncomfortable or is it just muscle tension causing the inability for your body to relax, worth thinking about before you race out and get yet another pillow.

Progress to body scans during the day when you are sitting at rest, perhaps just work on one area at a time until you get the hang of it, or when in for your next massage talk to your therapist and ask them to do some contract release exercises on areas that you may not be aware you are holding in contraction.

Yoga blocks are fantastic for releasing the muscles at the base of the skull. If you are interested in finding out more contact me and I will show you how to use one, the blocks are available for purchase too if you need one.

I know the last thing you probably want to do when you go to bed is another exercise! But this one is a simple one, doesn’t take too long and is so worth the good night sleep and waking pain and headache free.

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